Monday, October 10, 2011

The Various Kinds of Me

So our course is finally (finally!) done and I'll have more time for blogging from now on. I have a lot to say about Turkey but I might wait a few days until we're in Maine and have some time to relax to write up my thoughts on our time there. I still feel more attached to Taipei, but a month in Istanbul with an honest-to-goodness apartment, social life (everyone on our course got along extremely well - the chemistry was just phenomenal and we went out for lunches and every weekend), routine, dinners at home and neighbors who recognized us...well, that made me feel like a part of me has experienced Istanbul expat life, too.

I really adored it - Istanbul is an awesome city. Gorgeous and varied architecture, from Byzantine churches to grand mosques to 18th and 19th century European grandeur to touches of Oriental Express Art Nouveau to pre-war rowhouses to modern concoctions. Phenomenal food is everywhere, as well as fantastic shopping. Hills which are hell to climb but afford dazzling views. Friendly people, lots of street cats that are clean and well-fed (but not owned by anybody). All that is topped off with a nightlife that puts both DC and Taipei to shame - it's on par with New York but in some ways better - there is an entire neighborhood (Beyoglu around Istiklal Caddesi) on the Golden Horn that goes nuclear at sundown, with seemingly infinite choices for bars, dancing, cafes and food. Not even New York has something like that (although some places light up more than others). Let's just say that we partook generously of it - which is a lot more fun when there are ten of you and everyone needs to blow off some stress. I would totally stay - even live - in Istanbul again.

Now we're "home" - or at least on our way. Yesterday afternoon we landed at JFK and met my parents, spending the night before heading back to the airport (where we are now) to visit B's parents in Maine.

Being home, even for just an overnight - we return to my parents' next week - has made me think about who I am in Taipei, who I was in Istanbul and who I am in the USA. The Jenna who ate her mom's eggs, bacon and blueberry muffins this morning and helped putter around the kitchen she knows so well, who cuddled the two cats and took a lovely post-flight bath in the huge upstairs bathtub is basically an adult - and much more mature - version of the Jenna who last lived in that house in high school. The Jenna who lives in Taipei sometimes feels like a woman who experienced entirely different formative years than she did. You wouldn't have expected that Jenna to have grown up in a small town, and she's really nothing like the dorktacular girl that went to high school in that same town.

The first Jenna is the one who was always a little eccentric but is ticking all the right boxes as she grows older. It's the one who had a big, local, family wedding to a beloved-by-parents guy. It's the one who knows how to build a hearth fire and which apples are the best to pick, who knows a lot about LL Bean winter gear and is no stranger to chasing deer off the lawn. It's the one that would have probably made a really good school teacher or office worker and wouldn't have traveled that much outside Western Europe, and would probably own a house and car now.

The second one is more than a little eccentric without actually being insane. She's the one who had a big but non-traditional wedding in a crazy fuchsia dress to an awesome, adventuresome guy who also travels the world. It's the one who knows her way around an urban jungle and can tell you where to find the best siphon coffee bar, who knows how to bargain in a foreign bazaar and is no stranger to the realities of city life or how things (generally) work in foreign countries. It's the one who will never work in a public school (teachers deserve more support and higher salaries than what they earn in that system - and I deserve better, as well) and couldn't stand office life. It's the one who regularly gives her parents heart palpitations with her travel choices...and may never own a house or car (although an urban or semi-urban townhouse someday is not out of the question).

The first one is familiar with the way the light hits the Hudson River in the morning and lives near New York City without actually visiting it often. The second can tell you what it smells like as you bike along the trail from Jingmei to Zheng-da and stops in New York whenever she can. The first speaks French. The second forgot most of her French and speaks Chinese.

It's hard to explain, and harder still to draw a clear line, but it's there - Taipei Jenna isn't quite the same as Hometown Jenna. Neither were the same as DC Jenna - that one dated a few inappropriate guys, had a lot of friends but not a raging social life, worked in a cubicle and had a lot of growing up to do, and went out on the weekends to nightspots she didn't even like all that much. And of course there was Guizhou Jenna and India Jenna, and more recently, Istanbul Jenna.

They're all different women, and that's not just the result of growth and the passing of time. Their different facets come out not just as I grow, but as I live in different places. When I come home, the old me comes out a little more (ever heard the old story about how when you're around your parents, you revert to a lot of your childhood behaviors and ways of dealing with them despite the fact that you're all adults?), and the me who lives in Taipei recedes a bit.

Everyone is influenced by where they are and the places where they live or visit - not even necessarily for a long time. A week in Bangladesh could very well blow the mind of a lot of people I know (it certainly blew mine). I do think that expat life magnifies and deepens that. When you live in another country, especially one with a wildly different set of cultural norms, you absorb more of that place and change as a result. I have felt for years that my study abroad time in India is what knocked the Hometown Jenna's pinball down a wildly different course. She's the reason why Guizhou Jenna and Taipei Jenna got the chance to exist. Taipei Jenna made Istanbul Jenna possible. This is hardly a Nobel-worthy insight, but it's one I'm writing about now because my visit home made me more aware of it.

I quite liked Istanbul Jenna, though. She was a hard worker with a lot of friends who knew how to party. I hope she sticks around for a bit in Taipei!

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